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posted: 8/25/2010 12:01 AM

Suburban Muslims rush to aid Pakistan flood victims

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  • Houses are submerged in floodwater in Shadad Kot near Sukkar, Pakistan. Workers piled stones and sandbags to plug leaks in a levee protecting a pair of southern Pakistani cities Monday.

    Houses are submerged in floodwater in Shadad Kot near Sukkar, Pakistan. Workers piled stones and sandbags to plug leaks in a levee protecting a pair of southern Pakistani cities Monday.
    Associated Press


The catastrophic floods in Pakistan has sent shock waves through Chicago's suburban Muslim communities, who are donating unprecedented amounts of supplies and cash, say officials with area relief agencies.

The United Nations has dubbed Pakistan's monsoon floods the largest humanitarian crisis affecting an estimated 20 million people. That's bigger than the combined effects of Katrina, the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami and Kashmir earthquake, 2007 Cyclone Nargis, and this year's Haitian earthquake.

Roughly 8 million people need humanitarian aid, according to the U.N.

It is perhaps fortuitous then that this disaster coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims give the most in charity to fulfill one of the five pillars of their faith.

"Our community has responded very well over here," said Javed Aslam, spokesman for the The Islamic Foundation of Villa Park. "I have never seen so big a collection of clothes and eatable items within such a short time in my masjid."

The mosque is one of several suburban collection sites for food and clothing being shipped to Pakistan's flood-stricken areas through the local nonprofit Helping Hand (USA) for Relief and Development.

Helping Hand mobilized after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and already has resources in place on the ground in Pakistan.

During last Friday's prayers, Villa Park mosque worshippers donated roughly $30,000 toward flood relief. The community also collected roughly five truckloads of clothing, bedding and portable tents, some of which is being transported by Pakistan International Airlines for free. The rest will be shipped by sea cargo, Aslam said.

"The community is amazing," Aslam said. "We requested anybody who wanted to donate clothes, they should (also) donate $5 or $10. We are helping them to ship the clothes by donations. If only from Villa Park, we must have provided dresses for 5,000 people."

The floods, which began in late July in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, have left an area as big as Italy, or roughly 62,000 square miles, under water. Water has damaged or destroyed more than 1.2 million homes, swept away more than 3 million hectares of crops, and killed hundreds of thousands of livestock.

While international relief efforts have focused on providing emergency supplies to feed and shelter the millions of displaced people, as floodwaters recede, a second wave of deaths is expected from waterborne diseases.

Area relief organizers have been inundated with clothing and are now calling for cash contributions, as well as donations of medication, ready-to-eat nonperishable food, tents, shoes, warm jackets and blankets to weather the tough winter ahead in Pakistan's frontier region. They also seeking volunteers to help pack the materials.

Aslam said the mosque will keep accepting donations for as long as people continue to give. "I'm sure we are crossing another $10,000 to $20,000 within no time," he added.

In some cases, donations have outpaced the ability of relief organizers to ship them.

The basement of the Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines is filled with boxes waiting to be picked up from this past weekend's donation drive, said mosque President Ghulam Farooqie.

"We got tons of clothes and the people who were supposed to take it to Pakistan, looks like they are not organized yet," he said.

The mosque already has sent a truckload of supplies to Helping Hand, he added.

Helping Hand's warehouse in Westchester is chock full of boxes waiting to be shipped to Islamabad, said Mohammad Ikram Hussain of Villa Park, who heads the group.

It amounts to roughly four containers worth of clothing, linens, towels, bed sheets and shoes. The first shipment will leave Friday, Hussain said.

The group already has sent four containers from Houston, and will send another five in collaboration with PIA.

"Whenever they have flights, 20 to 50 boxes of food and medicine are going from Chicago," Hussain said.

The supplies are distributed from Helping Hand's Islamabad office to Pakistani regions based on need and the ability to get it there.

Helping Hand also has collected $1.4 million through fundraising - $250,000 in Illinois and the rest from California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington D.C.

"This happened to be Ramadan so every gathering in every mosque in the evening is kind of a fundraiser," Hussain said.

Hussain rattled off amounts collected at area mosques in a day of fundraising - $13,000 from the Islamic Center of Naperville; $4,500 from Des Plaines; $17,000 from the Islamic Foundation North in Libertyville; and $17,000 from Bridgeview Mosque Foundation.

"I am very much obliged this community is doing so much (on) short notice and they continue doing it," Hussain said.

Non-Muslim communities also are helping the relief effort nationwide, he added.

The funds support Helping Hands' 16 centers in Pakistan providing hot meals and basic medicine to flood victims.

With current exchange rates, $1 equals 80 rupees.

"Fifty dollars gets you two weeks of food for a family of five," Hussain said. "Cash is the best, so we can buy stuff from the local market and provide it much faster."